Spike Lee uses real-life detective Ron Stallworth’s story as a cracked mirror to examine Trump’s America in 2018.
The following is part of a monthly conversation series between The Hollywood Reporter contributors Simon Abrams and Steven Boone. This month, they tackled BlacKkKlansman, director Spike Lee’s fictionalized account of African-American undercover cop Ron Stallworth’s investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. In the film, Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrates the Klan with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a Caucasian Jewish-American police officer, and Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a student activist that Stallworth meets while attending a Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture lecture. There are spoilers ahead.
Simon Abrams, Getting Off the Bus: BlacKkKlansman has been praised as one of co-writer/director Spike Lee’s best films. It received the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, and has been hailed by friends and colleagues as his best in years. Our friend Odie Henderson, over at RogerEbert.com, gave the film four stars and said that it is “not only one of the year’s best films but one of Lee’s best as well.” Rembert Browne, writing for Time Magazine, echoes that sentiment by saying that BlacKkKlansman is “Lee’s most critically heralded and accessible effort in over a decade.” Search your review aggregator of choice — Twitter, for me — and you’ll soon see that some variation of this sentiments is fairly popular.
BlacKkKlansman feels like, among other things, Lee’s way of rejecting institutionally revered, but fundamentally (and apparently) racist American movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. He pointedly opens his film with footage from the latter movie, and quotes the former pic soon in two key scenes, one of which is a comically delivered but deadly serious address from Alec Baldwin as a sock puppet white supremacist named Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard. Documentary footage washes over Baldwin’s face as he speaks and erases his skin color; he is, in other words, white enough to become part of the screen. It’s a visually powerful shot across the bow, one that speaks to Lee’s skill as both a social commentator and an image-maker.
That said, I have mixed feelings about the film, as you and I discussed once our screening ended. My reservations mostly have to do with Lee and his co-writers’ fuzzy articulation of a theme that Henderson eloquently gave voice to in his review, namely how Adam Driver’s character Flip Zimmerman suggests (in one scene, through a Sam Fuller-worthy bit of declamatory dialogue) that like Ron Stallworth, he — a secular Jewish-American — must also pass among WASPy Caucasians. In that sense, my hesitations about Zimmerman have a lot to do with how I see BlacKkKlansman as the work of both Spike Lee the showman and Spike Lee the social commentator (I’d say “provocateur,” but that’s a loaded term, especially when applied to a black filmmaker). So, to start: How well does this film work as a fictional representation of history that’s a political statement, a feel-good entertainment and an effective piece of agitprop?